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My Experience with Seigo Yamaguchi Sensei

by William Gleason

Published Online

This article is reproduced here with the kind permission of the author and the Bujin Design website where it is hosted. -Ed.

William Gleason Sensei

Let me begin with the events that led up to my discovery of aikido and eventually to the meeting with my first teacher, Yamaguchi Seigo Sensei. By late 1960, after a competitive career as a champion gymnast, I had finished with high school‹or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that high school had finished with me. In any event, I left behind that entire minute society which claimed to be an accurate representation of the greater world outside. Fortunately I had friends from the university who were part of the greater bohemian society of “Dinkytown” in Minneapolis and I begin to spend time on the music scene of the university campus at a place called the Ten O’Clock Scholar. I would go in the evenings to listen to Bob Zimmerman (Dylan), Dave Ray, and Johnny Koerner and was so inspired by the music that I became a guitarist myself.

It was the time of the folk/blues revival, when black people like Big Joe Williams were first being allowed to play on campus. It was party time. The music, as well as the drinking, often went on until daylight. After the coffee houses and bars closed the musicians would gather at house parties, set up their instruments in different rooms, and provide free entertainment until the early hours of the morning. I identified with and even felt a spiritual connection to those wandering musicians who lived lives of freewheeling non-attachment and made enchanting music out of their difficulties and hardships.

One Sunday afternoon I was celebrating with friends at the Eloise Butler flower gardens in Minneapolis. We were relaxing, just hanging out in the grass when I suddenly felt a great sense of clarity. Somehow I knew that something in my consciousness had changed. I saw that there was a great perfection in everything and that everyone was a part of that perfection, even if we were unaware of it. I interpreted this great shift in my way of thinking as a genuine spiritual experience.

I “came down from the mountain” and proceeded to the nearest A & W root beer stand for a pronto pup, a hot dog deep fried in batter. After one bite, I threw it away in disgust. It didn¹t suit my new feeling. From that time on, although I continued to play and be a part of the music scene, I ate only vegetarian food, ran ten miles a day, and meditated every morning and evening. I was searching for a way to discover a deeper understanding of the world of spirit or ki, a word I hadn’t yet heard.

The place to “make it” in music at that time was Boston and so in the fall of 1961, I packed up my few belongings and left for the East coast to audition at the Club 47 on the campus of Harvard University. I was actually lucky enough at one point to play the beginning set leading up to a performance by John Lee Hooker.

Sensing that I was searching for something more than music, a fellow musician gave me a bag of brown rice and told me about a spiritual discipline called Macrobiotics. He said I should get myself down to the Arlington Street church and listen to the lectures of a Japanese man named Michio Kushi. Mr. Kushi was a student of the late George Ohsawa (Sakurazawa Nyoichi), who was a close friend of Morihei Ueshiba. His talk inspired me and I plunged headlong into the path of Macrobiotics, studying diet, oriental philosophy/medicine, and the “order of the universe,” according to Kushi. At that time I gave up music forever (which actually lasted for 2-3 years) and eventually begin to teach Macrobiotics myself. At one point I even managed a macrobiotic study house commune in Brookline, Massachusetts.

However, I still felt something was wrong or incomplete. Neither the physical well being resulting from the diet, nor the knowledge of oriental philosophy really dealt with the matter of self-development or self-realization. Then one day in Cambridge, Mass., I saw a short and stocky Japanese man named Mitsunari Kanai perform a martial art called aikido. I was completely floored. It was like the answer to a question that I hadn¹t known how to ask; it was both poetry and philosophy in motion. Although I continued my study of Macrobiotics, I found myself more and more drawn towards aikido. Then the breakthrough finally happened.

A tiny little man came from Kyoto, Japan and gave a lecture on Macrobiotics. His name was Takezo (Alcan) Yamaguchi. He told me about his brother who was a famous aikido teacher in Tokyo. Alcan Yamaguchi gave me a letter of recommendation and within six months I found myself in San Francisco waiting for my visa to Japan. I felt that at last I had found the entire package. I would go to Japan for three years, master this incredible art, and then bring it back to all those who were trying to grasp the wisdom of the East. Little did I know that this grandiose fantasy would present me with equally formidable difficulties.

When I arrived in Japan, I was sure I had found spiritual paradise, the origin itself. I went to a small park and sat there to contemplate this incredible place. The silence of this country was deafening; like an overwhelming current of energy that could not be perceived by the ear nor escaped from. When I finally arrived in Tokyo, I begin walking the streets looking for work teaching English. I was lucky enough to get a job at Nichibei Kaiwa Gakuen (now the International Education Center). Through Gary Peacock, a well-known jazz musician who I knew from macrobiotic circles, I found lodging with a woman named Hoashi who also spoke English. Soon I was settled and ready to begin my wondrous adventure.

Meeting with Yamaguchi Sensei

Yamaguchi Sensei taught at Honbu dojo, the world headquarters of aikido at Wakamatsu-cho in Shinjuku, and also had a small dojo at Ikenoue, about a half-hours ride from Honbu on the train. The latter was a large room (24 tatami mats) in a small house that belonged to a partially blind woman who made a living doing shiatsu massage. You could not do breakfalls or rough practice there because it was in a house, and because the mats were a good deal harder than usual dojo mats. One evening, I presented myself at the front door of the Ikenoue dojo with my letter of recommendation. Sensei was not at all pleased. He had never had a foreign student and it seemed he didn¹t particularly want one. This dojo was for his chosen few. It had an atmosphere of secrecy, as though the essence of the art was to be found here alone. In addition, although Sensei could speak English, he refused to do so. He would talk to me using one of his students as an interpreter. To add to his chagrin, my own arrogance was completely obvious. I felt that my past studies gave me an insight into aikido that few others had. I was truly a sword in his side. On the other hand, he could hardly refuse me as I came with a letter of recommendation from his older brother.

I had the ominous feeling that my time at this dojo was very limited. Sensei would show a technique, and when I couldn¹t understand what he was saying in Japanese, he would become frustrated. He¹d rise from the corner where he usually sat in his street clothes smoking a cigarette and giving instruction, enter the mat and wham, level me with irimi nage. I would hit the mat like a stone falling from a two-story roof. It was as if to say, “I guess you can understand that!” He did seem to get enjoyment from my presence though when a small girl who was five dans (I was sixth kyu at the time) trashed me in the same way. My difficult awakening to the reality of training and living in Japan was dawning.

A few months later, a few of his students approached me after class and asked that I tutor them privately in English. Of course I could not refuse and offered to do so for half the price of the going hourly rate. The next evening when I came to class, Sensei was furious. He shouted at me saying that I was allowed to study there only by special circumstances and that for me to ask for money from his students was intolerable. The only Japanese words I was able to make out clearly were, dete ike (get out, and don¹t bother to return). My protests were of little use and so my Ikenoue dojo experience came to an abrupt end.

I felt that my chances of learning aikido were truly gone but I had to continue trying just the same. I enrolled at Honbu dojo and studied with Yamaguchi Sensei on Monday evenings and Tuesday mornings. On the other days, however, I was fortunate enough to have the instruction of many great teachers including Doshu, Osawa Sensei, Saotome Sensei, and many others. These experiences were invaluable and deserve to be told as well, but I will leave that for another later time.

Through my friends at Ikenoue dojo I found out about Yamaguchi Sensei¹s top student, Takeda Sensei. He had his own dojo in Kamakura, about an hour south of Tokyo, and I began to travel there to study with him on the weekends. It wasn¹t until years later that I learned Yamaguchi Sensei had actually requested that Takeda Sensei take me in and look after me. It seems that there was sincere concern underneath his harsh exterior.

Yamaguchi Sensei was very strict and believed that proper etiquette was always necessary. For him, however, this also meant that undue or misplaced formality was unacceptable. Once he arrived at a gasshuku in the mountains south of Tokyo for a rest rather than to teach. Takeda Sensei, who sponsored the retreat, also declined because Yamaguchi Sensei was present. So for three days we played baseball. On the fourth day Yamaguchi Sensei finally begin to teach classes.

On another occasion Michio Kushi came to Japan and stopped by the Ikenoue dojo for a visit. He slid open the shojo screen door and, sitting in seiza, gave a low and formal bow. Yamaguchi Sensei shouted at him saying, “What are you doing bowing to me? You are a great teacher. Come over and sit down so we can talk!” With Sensei your etiquette had to be not only proper but also appropriate to all aspects of the time, place, and situation.

On still another occasion I attended a university gasshuku. We begin our practice at 5 in the morning by running up and down the mountain and then doing calisthenics before morning class. By breakfast time I was completely famished, yet I put the meat portion of my meal to the side. Yamaguchi Sensei asked me, “Why don¹t you eat your meat?” I replied that it made me sluggish and reduced my stamina. He then said,” Oh, if you understand that you shouldn’t eat it!” He disliked people doing things as a matter of habit or to follow rules rather than being based on personal experience or conviction.

For the next two years I studied with Yamaguchi Sensei only at Honbu Dojo. He taught three one-hour classes on Monday night, and another hour on Tuesday mornings following Doshu¹s 6:30 AM class. I attended Doshu¹s morning class about three times a week and took classes with other teachers in the morning and evening. On the weekends, I caught the slow train (Donkan) from Noborito, near my 4 1/2 mat room in Komai, and made connections to Kamakura. It took over two hours to get there, but I¹d make it in time for the Sunday morning class, which was from 9:00 to noon. In later years, when I was again attending Yamaguchi Sensei¹s dojo, I continued this Sunday training. I would eat lunch in Kamakura and then take the train back to Tokyo for evening training in Shibuya with Yamaguchi Sensei.

Actually it was on a ride back from a big seminar in Kamakura when, after my repeated requests, Yamaguchi Sensei finally relented and allowed me to begin studying at his dojo again. By that time he knew me well enough to know that I was not easily put off. I spoke Japanese reasonably well and had received my shodan from Honbu.

Shortly thereafter, for reasons I never was told, it became necessary to find a new dojo for Yamaguchi Sensei. After some searching by the senior students, we ended up moving to a shrine dojo in Shibuya, Tokyo. It was made for kendo practice and the hardwood floors were about as forgiving as a basketball court. Of course no one enjoyed falling on the hardwoods so practice was slow and quite honest. If the technique didn¹t work, you didn¹t move.

So after two years of turmoil, I settled into my routine of daily practice at Honbu, three times a week at Yamaguchi Sensei’s dojo, and weekends in Kamakura with Takeda Sensei. Yamaguchi Sensei’s dojo was the place of meticulous research. At Honbu there was the space (and mats) to actually practice the principles taught by Yamaguchi Sensei at his private dojo. Practice in Kamakura centered on learning through taking a great deal of ukemi, and it was perhaps there that I began to realize the reality of hara for the first time. In later years, I learned that repetition isn¹t always necessary in order to strengthen ki power.

Takeda Sensei would throw each of his students after class until they could no longer rise to their feet. I remember the feeling quite well. Regardless of how much stamina you build up, there comes a point where the physical muscles of your legs will no longer lift you up, support you, or move at all. I became able to take ukemi almost inexhaustibly, but there were times when I fell and simply couldn¹t get up.

I usually taught English for about five hours a day. After that, I would have to run about two miles in order to get to Honbu dojo in time for the 3:00 PM class. I was always sweating by the time I arrived and needed no warm-up. After that class, we would go to a coffee shop and kill time until the 5:30 class. From 6:30 until 7:00, there was free practice, and then class again from 7:00 until 8:00. This was then usually followed by up to an hour of free practice before going home.

Most people, like myself, had long train rides home and had to leave before the trains stopped running. Every night a different teacher taught, and most were seven or eight dans. They included the late Osawa Sensei, Watanabe Sensei, Koichi Tohei Sensei, Saotome Sensei, Sasaki Sensei, the young and upcoming Endo Sensei, Doshu, and many others. Between the three dojos I attended, I averaged about twenty hours of training a week during the ten years that I lived in Japan.

At Honbu dojo, Yamaguchi Sensei’s classes were the most highly attended. It was common for eighty people or more to be at his evening class. It was not only the Japanese students who attended his classes‹ Yamaguchi Sensei had a very large following of foreign students at Honbu as well. The French constituted the majority of the foreign students and, like myself, they seemed to stay forever, only going back to their own country a few weeks a year.

There were also people from Bolivia and other South American countries, Russia, Spain, Germany, and America. Most of the Americans didn¹t last for more than six months. Training at Honbu at that time required a lot of dedication and a certain amount of selflessness, and those people who weren¹t somewhat eccentric and driven seldom stayed.

The teachers at Honbu were not in the habit of taking each other’s classes, yet there were some who attended Yamaguchi Sensei’s class with some regularity. First and foremost was Saotome Sensei, who was already recognized as a major teacher even though he was younger than most of the second-generation students of the founder. Chiba Sensei and his student, Shibata, also attended Yamaguchi’s classes. Shibata didn¹t seem to like the way Yamaguchi Sensei threw him yet was drawn to it by the mystery of how it was done.

Yamaguchi Sensei’s movements were often so fast that even the high- ranking teachers sometimes had trouble taking his ukemi. I personally witnessed Yamada Sensei, Chiba Sensei, Takeda Sensei, Endo Sensei, Shibata Sensei, Sasaki Sensei, and of course Saotome Sensei taking ukemi for Yamaguchi Sensei. Even to watch was awesome and I learned something about a degree of intensity which we don¹t have in our practice today.

Although I had the opportunity to take a lot of ukemi from Yamaguchi Sensei at his own dojo, I had fewer chances at Honbu because of the number of students there. Sensei had two or three students at Honbu who took ninety percent of the ukemi. Foremost was Yasuno san who was my senpai even before he entered Honbu. He had studied with Yamaguchi since high school and was very strong and flexible.

As for me, I wanted to take the fast moving ukemi of Yamaguchi Sensei at Honbu so I tried to be as attentive as possible. I’m sure Sensei was aware of this as he walked around teaching by example. At the moment my attention would wander, he would point to me. I would jump up and attack him as if my life depended upon it, but having been taken by surprise, I never managed to do anything except make a fool of myself. I guess this was part of Sensei’s teaching: You had to always be alert and ready.

My dan ranks all came through Honbu dojo. I wanted to receive rank from Yamaguchi Sensei directly but he insisted that it be formally through the aikikai. He may have been thinking about my possible future, yet it seems he always wanted to uphold the memory and legacy of O-Sensei first and foremost. Due to his popularity and ability, with both foreign and Japanese students, people often thought that Yamaguchi Sensei might start his own branch of aikido, yet he never had any such intention. He very much disliked the idea of individual power and felt that everyone should work together even if they held differences of opinion.

He didn¹t allow me to be rough with my juniors or soft with those who were stronger than myself. Being a foreigner, there were some Japanese uchi deshi who felt it was their place to put me in mine. On more than one occasion, a self-appointed individual would take it upon himself to give me a severe trouncing. Sometimes they would use tricks like bringing you gently to the mat and smashing you down at the last moment. I didn¹t particularly like working with these people, yet Yamaguchi Sensei insisted that I make no such preferences. “He is the very one you need to practice with,” he would say. Once, I was working with a young girl and it seems I brought her down too strongly with an irimi nage. Yamaguchi shouted and a hundred people stopped and slowly sat down in seiza. He pointed out to everyone my mistake. I felt very small.

At the Shibuya dojo when the evening keiko was over, everyone would change into their street clothes and sit around while Yamaguchi Sensei spoke. Sometimes, if sufficiently prompted, some of the students would join in conversation with him, yet mostly we just listened. If you entered into the conversation, it was with caution. If you spoke foolishly, Sensei would have a good chuckle at your expense. He was a man of wide experience and study and had a good deal to say concerning almost any topic whatsoever. Sometimes he would talk for over an hour and some of the students would be forced to politely excuse themselves. At that point Yamaguchi Sensei would rise and we would all slowly saunter out of the dojo, taking care that, after Sensei, the senior students were the first to exit.

Yamaguchi Sensei did not allow rough (ranbo na) keiko. He insisted that students drop the tightness in their entire body and work for grace and effectiveness through principle and technique alone. He taught that power was a must, yet it must be total power that included muscle, mind, and ki working in unison.

During class he didn’t explain much about technique but would work a lot with each student personally. After class however, he loved to go out to the coffee shops and drink coffee, smoke cigarettes, and talk. Once he spent an entire day after morning class, going from coffee shop to coffee shop and talking. He would become so interested in the conversation that he wouldn¹t want to stop at all. It was during these times when it was clear how much he really loved to be with others.

I remember one occasion shortly before I left Japan. We were at a coffee shop and one of the students asked me what I would do when I returned to America. I said that I would like to teach Aikido. Yamaguchi Sensei interjected, ” You would like to teach aikido? You are going to teach aikido!” It seems that in spite of the many scoldings that I had received from him over the years, he really did support my dream from the beginning. Sensei was like that. He went out of his way to be hard on the most talented or gung-ho students yet would be very chummy with those who were less serious. Sometimes he would throw Takeda Sensei very hard and then walk away as if to say, ” No big deal after all.” This was difficult to accept for someone who was already known as a high level teacher, yet later Takeda Sensei would say, “Yamaguchi Sensei is a man of great spiritual fortitude.”

From time to time, students of Yamaguchi Sensei went to America and tried to teach Yamaguchi Sensei¹s way of practice. In the evening after keiko he would laughingly read their letters in which they inevitably said how impossible it was to teach his aikido. No one could understand or agree with his techniques, which seemed to flow so effortlessly. This is really no surprise. Even the high-ranking teachers of Honbu dojo couldn¹t usually understand how Yamaguchi Sensei was able to so effortlessly do what he did. Taking his ukemi was an indescribable experience. He touch was like a feather, yet you would fly off your feet as if you had been hit by a tornado and hit the mat like a sack of stones.

It’s really a shame that there is so little documentation of Sensei¹s aikido. He was, in the eyes of most of the second-generation shihan, a genius of Budo. He was an artist but also a man of deep philosophy and conviction. He followed no strict religious beliefs, yet was quite a student of Lao Tsu and the philosophy of yin and yang. His love for the sword, along with his worldview and philosophy seemed to be what formed his unique understanding and precise technique. Watching his aikido you could clearly see the precision and beauty of sword. He never gave much emphasis to repetition but rather said one should be in the moment and focus on each singular movement as if it was the only thing in existence.

In the dojo Yamaguchi Sensei always looked like a giant. His ki seemed to extend everywhere. When he walked onto the mat he carried an undeniable authority which had nothing to do with rank or position. His authority came from his own self-knowledge and lack of presumption. On the street in his regular clothes however, he was quite an average man. He dressed in loose fitting comfortable clothes and seemed no different than anyone else. He was about 5¹ 6¹¹ tall, and he weighed only 135 pounds. This seems quite amazing as I once saw him throw a sumo student to the mat.

When he walked down the street he seemed very alert, yet completely relaxed. His arms hung loosely at his sides when he walked and looked as though they weighed a ton each. His eyes, one of which was always more closed than the other, looked at you with great intensity. When he smiled it was with an ear-to-ear grin which seemed to portray the same expansive ki so obvious in his aikido technique. When such an expression came forth it was clear that he had a great warmth of feeling and compassion, in spite of his usual strictness.

Sensei was often surrounded by his closest devotees and he seemed to like that a great deal. Those who were close to him truly loved him. For example, even a great aikido teacher in Japan makes very little money and has a hard time making ends meet. At the end of the year it was a custom among his closest students to take up a collection and bring him a “sackfull” of money to help with his expenses for the upcoming year. It was as if to say, “Please be well and continue to teach us in this new year.”

During my last three years in Japan, I moved to Kamakura because I wanted to enjoy the beauty there. During that time my commute for work and keiko was reversed from Kamakura to Tokyo. Each year, I threatened to return to America and each year the students of Kamakura dojo rose to the occasion to send me off with a going away party. It became a standing joke because time after time I changed my mind and stayed yet another year. All in all, I stayed in Japan for ten years without leaving even once. This was probably not a good idea, as I became somewhat crazy and have never been completely cured even to this day. In any case, I finally came up against the question of whether or not I should live in Japan for the rest of my life. I had become quite comfortable there, studying Aikido with the best teachers in the world, making a good living teaching English, and living within the elegant and charming background of Kamakura. If I didn¹t leave soon I would stay forever and my dream of passing down the teachings that had been given to me would be lost. So finally after ten years I returned.

I opened my dojo in Brookline, Massachusetts and have been teaching there ever since. On several occasions between 1980 and 1990 I visited Japan and Yamaguchi Sensei but after that it became too difficult to get back. The years passed and in late January 1996, we learned that Yamaguchi Sensei had suddenly passed away in his sleep. It was a great shock to all who knew him. He was, at nearly seventy years old, still incredibly young. His hair was still jet black and he moved like a man in his thirties. Sensei had never been a man who ate much although he was quite strict about what he did eat. He would only have a single beer on rare occasions in order to be sociable. He liked to drink coffee, smoke cigarettes, and talk so much that I think he often went all day actually forgetting to eat anything at all. It seems that over the years these habits created a slight ulceration in his intestine. His doctor advised him to have it fixed and said that if he did so he could live an active life for another twenty years.

Yamaguchi Sensei however was a man who believed very strongly in the natural order of things. He opted to take the chance that perhaps he could cure the situation himself. I was told that on the evening before his death he took part in an aikido demonstration and ended it with a three-man attack. This was nothing unusual for Sensei, yet afterwards he seemed to have a hard time getting his breath and seemed quite uncomfortable. Refusing a ride, Yamaguchi Sensei said that he would make his own way home and disappeared into the night. That evening, January 24, he died in his sleep from internal bleeding.

When I heard that Yamaguchi Sensei had passed away I felt a deep hollowness inside. I received so much from him. Not only did he teach me aikido but even more he taught me a certain honesty, integrity and respect for life. In many ways he was more like a father to me than just a teacher. He left me with a vision and a dream, which I am still pursuing today; the further research of aikido and all of its many applications to our daily life.

For more information on Shobu Aikido of Boston please visit their website at http://www.shobu.org/.